Lions-Vikings division face-off storylines
After back-to-back road losses to San Francisco and Tennessee, the Detroit Lions return to Ford Field Sunday to face the surprising, first-place Minnesota Vikings in a NFC North match-up.
Here are five storylines to follow:
1. Technically, mathematically, there's no "must-win" game this early.
So why does this feel like such a crucial one for the Lions?
A victory only helps clean up the record a little bit, but a loss seemingly could put them in big trouble based on their upcoming schedule.
Following a bye week, the Lions play four of their next five on the road. The road games include NFC contenders Philadelphia and Chicago, along with a rematch against Minnesota.
What's more, the two home games after that stretch are against Super Bowl contenders Green Bay and Houston.
Bad seasons can happen fast in the 16-game NFL. Just ask Tampa Bay, which went from 10 victories in 2010 to four in 2011.
The Lions aren't publicly putting the same enormous pressure on this game's outcome, but they concede it's an important one if only because the suddenly-revived Vikings are a division opponent.
"If you don't win within your division, you have no shot really to make it in the end," linebacker Justin Durant said.
Let's add one more theory: If you start 1-3 and have the Lions' schedule for the next seven games, you probably have no shot to make it in the end, either.
So, yes, if there's ever a "must-win" game in September, this would seem to be it for the Detroit Lions.
2. There's been a lot of hype about the defensive line for a couple years now. There appears to be depth and talent there.
But there also continues to be inconsistency.
Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker completed 29-of-42 passes for 378 yards. He never got sacked. The Lions were credited with only one quarterback hit, that by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Part of the reason is that Locker, like all of the Lions' opponents, put a big emphasis on releasing the ball quickly, before the pressure arrives.
But no sacks and one quarterback hit?
"That's totally disappointing when you never get to the quarterback and make a big impact," Suh said. "That's why we put this type of defensive line together. Affect the quarterback, affect the run and make big plays. We obviously didn't do that."
The Lions are giving up 31.3 points per game. If the D-line doesn't live up to its perceived potential, week-in and week-out, there are going to be a lot more disappointments similar to last week's 44-41 overtime loss to the Titans.
To make matters worse, defensive tackle Corey Williams will miss at least one game because of a knee injury.
3. They Lions are averaging only one takeaway per game, and they have no interceptions.
If the trend continues, it's going to be a serious problem, perhaps one this team can't overcome.
A year ago, the defense had its flaws, but at least created turnovers. The Lions ranked No. 3 in takeaways with 2.1 per game.
This year, after three weeks, they rank tied for 20th in the same category.
As a result, the Lions are tied for 21st in turnover margin (minus-0.7) compared to finishing tied for fourth last year (plus-0.6).
No statistic in football accurately separates winning teams from losing teams more than turnover margin. You win the turnover battle, you should win the football game.
4. The Vikings have lost their last 11 NFC North games, but they took the Lions down to the wire both times last year.
A 3-13 team in 2011, Minnesota shocked the league last Sunday with an upset of San Francisco, which was being hyped as the NFC's top team after beating Green Bay and Detroit.
Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder (Florida State) has completed 70.1 percent of his passes to rank second in the NFL. He's fifth in passer rating.
The offense also has been boosted by the somewhat miraculous return from knee surgery by running back Adrian Peterson.
Are the Vikings that much better? Or did they just catch the 49ers napping?
We'll know more Sunday because this is too important for the Lions not to bring their "A" game.
5. In his last nine games against Detroit, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen has 12.5 sacks.
The Lions' offensive line has allowed only four sacks in three games on a total of 135 passing attempts.
But this is going to be a serious challenge for them, especially tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus, because Allen tends to move around and line up in different spots.
"There are a lot of plays where it looks like he's out of the play – he's stymied in the rush, been chipped … (but) he's very good at making the off-scheduled play," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "A lot of guys can make the plays that come to them. He can go create a play somewhere."
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (hip) is listed as probable after practicing Friday for the second straight day.
Running back Mikel Leshoure (groin), tight end Tony Scheffler (calf), linebacker Justin Durant (back) and safety Amari Spievey (groin) are all questionable.
Safety Louis Delmas, who hasn't practiced since undergoing knee surgery in early August, remains doubtful.